Postmodern Considerations of Original Sin

I was going to post a three part series on International Development and Guns: Economics, Violence, and Governance – but I seem to have lost it in my computer somewhere. So let’s talk about Original Sin.

We all prioritize some texts over others in Scripture. Everyone does this, all traditions. I’ve never known any Christian who gave as much weight to the chapters of mildew laws in Leviticus as they do to John chapter 3 or Romans chapters 5-8. When we sideline or ignore substantial passages in order to protect a particular rendition of a doctrine, (what in economics is called an ‘externality’), we end up charge-able with cherry picking our way through the Bible.

Something Christians have always done for 20 centuries is re-work doctrines when it becomes evident that the cherry-picking simply can’t be sustained. Whatever stimulates it in the discoveries or politics of the day, things get to the point where the old iteration of that doctrine can’t stand the weight of the externalities it can’t explain, and Christians go to work again on that doctrine. It seems pretty evident to me that our Augustinian version of “Original Sin” is in need of some serious re-think if a doctrine describing human depravity is going to make much sense to postmodern people. Saying that  everyone should be sent to hell for being born with a condition they had no control over, won’t stand up to moral scrutinizing today. And my problem with Augustine’s version is not that it’s old. I’m all for Paleo-Orthodoxy. Considering how many other doctrines have come under serious re-work, I’m surprised this version of OS (“Original Sin”) survived the Reformation seemingly unscathed.

So my 22 year old son started a facebook discussion due to something he posted from a theology class he’s in at college. I slid into it and it evolved into a detailed discussion concerning what is on the chopping block when it comes to OS. Here’s the quote that started it all off:

“Recent research in molecular biology, primatology, sociobiology, and phylogenetics indicates that the species Homo sapiens cannot be traced back to a single pair of individuals, and that the earliest human beings did not come on the scene in anything like paradisal physical or moral conditions. It is therefore difficult to read Genesis 1–3 as a factual account of human origins. In current Christian thinking about Adam and Eve, several scenarios are on offer. The most compelling one regards Adam and Eve as strictly literary figures—characters in a divinely inspired story about the imagined past that intends to teach theological, not historical, truths about God, creation, and humanity.”- Daniel Harlow “After Adam: Reading Genesis in an age of Evolutionary science.”

I’ll pick up from there next time.

The NT doesn’t support our Western doctrine of Original Sin

In Luke 5:31-32 (HCSB) – Jesus says “The healthy don’t need a doctor, but the sick do.  I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” It’s very clear here that Jesus considered some people in his generation to be in right standing with God already, before the atonement on the cross. The Book of Hebrews lists many, many heroes of faith who were righteous long before Jesus came. But the way most of us understand the idea of original sin is that everybody on the planet has some sort of cosmic evilness in them that makes God furious and the only way to get out of an eternity of hell is to be lucky enough to hear about Jesus and say the sinner’s prayer.  So, the point of Jesus’ coming is this: everyone in the world is born with a condition God is furious at, so he is sending everyone in the world to hell, (like punishing a kid for having Down’s Syndrome) and Jesus comes as the medicine so you can go to heaven.

It’s like we’ve changed stories. Because you would never read the Old Testament cover to cover and come away with that idea: that the point of the story is that God is sending everyone to hell due to original sin, unless they confess the Messiah, whereupon the can go to heaven.  You would never even remotely come away with that idea from reading the Old Testament. The storyline in the Old Testament is that Yahweh created the world and it is being despoiled by violence and idolatry and evil and God wants people to live rightly in His world. So it’s like we’ve switched storylines in between the Testaments.

So the question is, is there a change of story, or are we mis-reading our New Testaments? Logically, Jesus the Messiah came to solve the problem presented in the Old Testament: to put God’s world right. Much Protestant theology, however, acts as if Jesus came to solve the problem OF the Old Testament: as if the problem is the way people related to God in the Old Testament (the Law) which now has to be remedied (by grace).

While grace and the atonement are certainly central realities in the New Testament, I think we’ve gotten mixed up about the storyline. I will say it again: the Old Testament never remotely suggests that the central story of the world is that all humanity is sinful and going to hell and can only go to heaven if they accept the Messiah. No, the Messiah is coming to set the world right, including the people in it. This is a story about this world, not an insurance policy for lucky insiders regarding the afterlife.

Structuration and Christian Theology PART THREE

CS Lewis said this about scientific theories – once enough externalities (he didn’t use the word, but it means things unexplained by the current theory) pile up so high that the current theory can’t sustain the weight, people go hunting a new theory that will be able to carry the freight of the externalities. It’s not, Lewis argued, that the new theory is actually more true than the old theory, but it serves the questions or discoveries of the current generation better in explaining what they see.

I think what Lewis said about scientific theory is also true about theology. That’s why it changes.

I believe God’s Spirit at work in this interplay, responding to the ways human society develops in its freedom. It’s a much more  “responsive” picture of God’s interaction in His world, rather than a controlling, deterministic one. (This kind of picture of God  doesn’t mean God doesn’t intend to do some things He said He will do, but it looks more to kairos moments rather than chronos pre-scheduled ones). So, a Structuration look at theology would say: as human societies have developed and advanced they have developed their theology to keep up. It’s a parallel view to progressive revelation’s view of the Bible wherein the Mosiac Law gives a deeper understanding of God than Abraham had, which is in turn deepened by the relational insights of the Psalms, developed further –with a deeper level morality – by the Prophets, and finally revealed far, far more accurately in the “mirror image of the Father,” Jesus. Just as the view of progressive revelation says God revealed more of His nature (or the Israelites came to understand more) as time went by across the pages of the Old Testament, and finally most definitely in Jesus, so in Structuration theory we would say our theology understands more about what God is like as time goes by, or at least apply what we know better to our century’s specific issues.

As to the question: “is our theology getting better, more accurate?” Well, in certain areas, hopefully. For example, I do believe that our theology that “Slavery is bad. Period.” is better than theological systems that allowed for slavery. We have a better theology of slavery than the Bible does. Period. Does anyone want to argue that?  We have worked out the implications of the  Bible’s theology of women further than the people in the Bible did.

However, in general, although the development and survival of societies should typically tend to direct their theology in ways that promote well-being, (as I think has happened for both women and slavery), as Lewis said about scientific theory, I don’t know that our theology is necessarily always truer than former ones, but it serves the current generation in more wholesome ways than ones from eras which no longer work, no longer answer pressing questions we have before us. Theology will continue to morph and change in ways, hopefully true to the Gospel, but also answering the questions of each generation in meaningful ways, as time goes on.  Christians with a huge variety of theology have been in love with God and trying their best to do what Jesus says to, for 20 centuries. This is why changes in theology don’t bother me overmuch.

Structuration Theory and Theology PART TWO: the water and the stones

In the last post I described the sociology theory “Structuration” and how I compare its view (of the development of human societies) to water in a streambed flowing among stones – both the water and the stones mutually affecting each other. I was talking about this because I suspect the history of change in Christian theology is also a story of Structuration.

Christians I know tend to have a variety of ideas about changes in theology. Some see change as a watering down of the clear, Divinely-inspired teaching of the Bible; as in, people change theology to suit their whims instead of obeying what God has said. I don’t think that accurately describes the development of Christian doctrine down through the centuries, and certainly doesn’t reflect how a doctrine like, say, the Atonement, has undergone change. People who take this approach are well-meaning I am sure, but I don’t think their understanding of the history of Christian thought is very robust.

Others see it more in terms of progressive revelation; as in, God is helping us slowly develop better and better theology as the centuries unfold. This sounds encouraging, though we have to admit it’s pretty us-focused, self-serving, and naïve concerning the negative effects much theology has.

Some see it as simply a matter of applying the correct scientific methods of interpreting the Scriptures, and whoever does the best work is the one who is correct. Thus the exegetical wars between Wesleyans and Calvinists, etc. etc., ad nauseum.  I think history has shown these wars of textual minutia to be unwinnable, with a large swath of bombed-out territory in between the trenches, littered with lots and lots of human casualties that too many of the weapons-designers don’t get out to see.

I suspect that the truth about changes in theology is a lot like Structuration theory’s explanation of change in human societies. The traditions, beliefs and worldviews a person grows up with shapes their view of theology, (and their understanding of what the Scriptures mean, and which Scriptures are more important than others). But then again, that person’s unique thought processes interpret what they see in the world around them in ways that are possible to break beyond the bounds of the prevailing thought around them – thus pushing the stream of water flow in a different direction, in a minor – or sometimes major – shift. These changes in perspective in theology are often in response to discoveries or new thought in other realms – biology, physics, archeology, humanities, etc. But it’s not one-way, because the prevailing theology/worldview shapes the assumptions those scientists come to their work with as well. Thus I think history shows that the human society and its prevailing thought systems (and new discoveries) affects theology’s development, and theology affects the society as well, in an on-going interplay.  Easy example: when we discover the earth goes ‘round the sun, instead of the sun going ‘round the earth, it’s hard to stick with a theology – and an exegetical method – that says the sun goes ‘round the earth.  There’s a lot more to be said about this. Our theologies have changed in all kinds of ways down through the centuries because of things we’ve learned in science, or because of our consciences. More on structuration theory and theology in the next post.

Today is the fifth day of Christmas Season in the Christian calendar. So it’s not too late for me to sincerely wish you: Merry Christmas.

Structuration theory and Christian theology; Like Water Flowing Around Stones

Structuration is a theory, conceived by sociologist Anthony Gibbens, utilized in community development studies to describe how societies or cultures change, develop and evolve. It takes the view that traditions, norms and the institutions that embody them (the “structures”) shape people (the “agents”), but then again people shape those structures, in an on-going feedback loop/ Coriolis spiral of symbiotic, fluid, interplay.  It serves as sort of a macro-level, umbrella theory that encompasses many of the other theories of community development (all of which are noticeably true, it seems, in at least some ways, but incomplete in the bigger picture). In structuration theory you can’t point to just one element and say “that’s why societies change.” There’s something more complex going on.

I like to picture it as water in a stream flowing around stones.

Picture a stream flowing around stones. Close your eyes. Let out a deep breath. Feeling more peaceful already, aren’t you? I know, I know, I’m wonderful.

Anyway, the stream flowing around stones is a picture of Structuration theory. The traditions, beliefs and practices of society (also organized into institutions) are the stones (“structures”) and the water is the people (“agents”). Notice how the stones shape the direction of the water, here a boulder divides the stream, over there the ledge pushes the flow into a bend, down a ways the field of round stones causes a small rapid. However, the water shapes the stones too.  The water moves the stones around, wears them into new shapes, even, as happened here during a hurricane, moves the course of the stream completely out of the riverbed and carves something new (the Russian revolution of 1917 or the American one of 1776 would be examples  of this).  In the same way, in Structuration theory structures and agents are seen to mutually shape each other – a duality of affecting forces. Neither has priority over the other.

While more specific analyses of communities are necessary in order to avoid partial and/or too vague conclusions, a strength of Structuration theory is it’s etic, get-out-of-your-fishbowl, big picture overview. The reason I am talking about this is that I suspect Structuration theory accurately describes how Christian theology works, and has developed down through the centuries. We can get to that in the next post.

Working our way backwards to, not forward from, the Virgin Birth

When I’m drinking coffee with someone poking around on the edges of Christian faith, one of the things that sometimes comes up (especially this time of year), is serious doubt about the Virgin Birth. I’ve come to the spot where I no longer try to convince people of the Virgin Birth, rather I think it’s a doctrine we work our way backwards to; after discovering more and more what God is like in our own lives, it becomes easier to believe this God could and would do something like a Virgin Birth. Trying to get someone over the intellectual hurdle of the Virgin Birth before they can exert some faith in Christ seems to me, after 20+ years of full time pastoral experience, to be going about this from the wrong direction. I don’t know anyone under the age 50 who ever came to faith by saying “Well, since the Bible says Jesus was born of a virgin, he must be God!” That would be to suppose that people already assume the Bible is true, something by no means the case today.

So the conversation for me often looks something like this: First, I don’t follow Jesus or believe in the Creator God because of the truth or untruth of a doctrine like the Virgin Birth. Even if it turned out that the Virgin Birth was just a way Matthew and Luke were saying  Jesus was from God but not to be taken literally (though I think there are strong historical reasons why neither of them would want to write anything like the Virgin Birth narrative unless they believed it to be utterly and literally true – far too risky considering the easy comparison to Greco-Roman mythology – both of these men were demonstrably very smart thinkers; and no one, as far as we can tell, in the 400 years from Isaiah to Matthew, ever put together the idea of Immanuel and the Messiah until Matthew himself does – so it isn’t a case of text-proofing), I would still follow Jesus for all the reasons I believe doing so is the smart human option. I don’t do it due to his birth circumstances.

Second, after we “taste and see that the Lord is good,” after we get an experience little by little of what living the way of Jesus is like, and experiencing the strange and new experience of having His Spirit at work in our hearts and minds, we start to find ourselves trusting His way (and Himself!) more and more. As our based-on-experience time accumulates and we watch things happen in life that we have a hard time explaining outside of God, we become more and more aware that there are things God is doing in our lives supernaturally. We see situations change, prayer affect peoples’ hearts, hard-to-explain healings, and other things occur to the extent that we begin to find it easier and easier to believe that the God working in Jesus really did heal people (no one in that generation ever claimed he didn’t – they just accused him of black magic), and from there it becomes easier to believe that this God would do something extraordinary like a Virgin Birth, as well. When you’ve experienced the presence of God working in your own life more and more, and found yourself changing as a result in ways that delight you, when you’ve seen miracles occur, it becomes easier and easier to reason your way backwards then, to something like the Virgin Birth.

“Until then,” I usually say, “I wouldn’t worry overmuch about the Virgin Birth. I don’t mind if you believe it or not. I’m not saying disregard it, I don’t believe in intellectual dishonesty – it always backfires. But maybe it’s a subject you can always come back to, anytime you want. Right now, I’d suggest you set it off to the side for the moment.  At this point in your life, there may be more compelling reasons to consider trying out the way of Jesus. And you may find that the results shed new light on this whole question.”

To me. this approach makes the Virgin Birth a doctrine we work our way backwards to, rather than forwards from.

This is Classic NT Wright !

If you have any doubt that some major theological themes need reworking in our time, read NT Wright’s Justification. It’s an incredibly enjoyable read, and well done. Here’s a classic bit of his writing:

“The theological equivalent of supposing that the sun goes round the earth is the belief that the whole of Christian truth is all about me and my salvation…. That the central question is, ‘What must I do to be saved?’

Now do not misunderstand me. Hold the angry or fearful reaction. Salvation is hugely important. Of course it is!  Knowing God for oneself, as opposed to merely knowing or thinking about him, is at the heart of Christian living. Discovering that God is gracious, rather than a distant bureaucrat or a dangerous tyrant, is the good news that constantly surprises and refreshes u. But we are not the center of the universe. God is not circling around us. We are circling around him. It may look, from our point of view, as though ‘me and my salvation’ are the be-all and end-all of Christianity. Sadly many people – many devout Christians! – have preached that way and lived that way…. It goes back to the high Middle Ages in the Western church… But a full reading of Scripture itself tells a different story.

God made humans for a purpose: not simply for themselves, not simply so that they could be in relationship with him, but so that through them, as his image-bearers, he could bring his wise, glad, fruitful order to the world.  And the closing scenes of Scripture, in the book of Revelation, are not about human beings going off to heaven to be in a close and intimate relationship with God, but about heaven coming to earth. The intimate relationship with God which is indeed promised and celebrated in that great scene of the New Jerusalem issues at once in an outflowing, a further healing activity, the river of the water of life flowing out from the city and the tree of life springing up, with leaves that are for the healing of the nations.

….we are in orbit around God and his purposes, not the other way around. If the Reformation tradition had treated the Gospels as equally important to the Epistles, this mistake might never have happened.”

– Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision (2009; InterVarsity Press) p. 23-24

A former fundamentalist speaks about the way her church approached the Bible

Samantha grew up in a fundamentalist church. In this post, she sums up the vast difference of how the Old Testament was treated carefully in her church, and how the New Testament was treated at literal face-value, ignoring all of the cautions they applied to the Old Testament. Her post is an example as to why the work of people like N.T. Wright, (which focuses on understanding the Jewish literature of the inter-Testamental period  (400 BC – 30 AD), and what people in Jesus’ day were thinking and saying, in order to comprehend what those themes and words mean in the New Testament), is so important to a right understanding of the NT texts. Her post also illustrates why so many Nazarene scholars are un-interested in the approach to the Scriptures often taken in fundamentalist circles.

http://defeatingthedragons.wordpress.com/2014/08/27/the-new-testament-context-and-story/

Why Nazarene scholars won’t embrace inerrancy

So I received in the mail one of those little books who people with a burning message on their hearts find the resources for which to mail a copy of their book to every pastor in America, or, in this case, every pastor in a particular denomination. This book was mailed to Nazarenes, and addresses Nazarenes specifically and by name throughout, arguing that the C/N has walked away from an inerrancy view of Scripture and that we are in grave danger. Nazarene theology texts, and even letters and emails to and from Nazarene theologians, from both today and several generations ago, are quoted throughout.

I read the whole thing while grilling some fabulous tilapia (give your tastebuds a shot of shalom and baste with McCormick’s Baja Citrus mix). There were no new arguments here, just the same ones we are familiar with: if you can’t trust the bible in every single assertion, no matter how far from the subject of salvation, you can’t trust it for ANYTHING. (Somehow, I have been able to be deeply in love with Jesus, and follow Him intentionally and in every way I can think of, all these years, without believing in the kind of inerrancy the author does… but that’s not good enough). The author does, however, with his selected texts, cause it to appear that Nazarene theologians once, several generations ago, held a strict inerrancy, but then those same theologians moved away from it within their lifetimes.

And that’s the thing. There’s a reason Nazarene scholars won’t embrace a strict inerrancy (we hold that it is inerrant in all things pertaining to salvation). The reason is that we can’t unlearn things we know about the Bible. We can’t unlearn all the places throughout the Scriptures where it is apparent we are not dealing with the words dripping from God’s own mouth, Qur’an-style. Paul can’t remember who all he baptized. People who bash enemy infants’ heads in on stones are blessed. Paul requests his coat be brought, cause its chilly. Paul says “now the following words aren’t from the Lord, they are my opinion…” The Book of Daniel is a hodge-podge cut and paste of languages and first-person, third person, with several dating issues, highly unlikely to have been written by one person named Daniel. It’s clear the Pentateuch really is comprised from multiple sources. Big deal, what’s the problem? I don’t’ have time to list the examples. The author of the mailed-to-you-free! book does the typical inerrant argument: if Jesus referred to Moses as the author of the Torah, then the documentary hypothesis can’t be true! This is such a strange idea, as if Jesus’ goal were to correct any historical or cultural or scientific misunderstandings  his generation entertained! And ignores basic concepts of how language works. (I call my son’s car ‘Tanner’s’ even though it’s legally mine.)

So anyway, here’s my takeaway. Nazarene scholars won’t embrace the fundamentalist inerrancy view, because of the evidence right in front of them as they look at the Scriptures.  Apparently our early scholars also came to that conclusion as the evidence stacked up in front of them. Interesting, to me, is that hundreds of years ago committed Christians were noticing the same things in the texts – including Adam Clarke, John Wesley, John Calvin and Matthew Henry! Our fundamentalist friends indicate you can’t really embrace the Scriptures and follow Jesus without strict inerrancy, but history shows that plenty of people do.

A Different Understanding of ‘Gospel’

Maybe we are witnessing a shift in what we understand ‘the Gospel’ to be about. I’m coming across more and more examples of orienting Christian theology around the Creation narratives and the question ‘What was God’s original intent for Creation?’ Instead of starting with 16th century questions regarding how to get to heaven, the questions center around what the Creation narratives, and subsequent Scriptures,  tell us about God’s desire for how the Creation/Earth should look now. What His will is NOW on Earth (aka the Lord’s prayer).

This gives us a different starting point than what we traditionally think of in Western Christianity. We usually characterize the starting point of the Gospel as “How do I get to heaven?” This shift starts us by asking “What is God’s will for Earth?”

Instead of the controlling question being about life after death, it’s about life before death.

Instead of the controlling question/metaphor being “there’s a hell to shun and a heaven to gain,” this is “heaven is vacation between death and resurrection BACK ON EARTH – which is the centerpoint of God’s interest and redemption.”

This also casts the point of Jesus’ coming differently:  In the first case ‘Why did Jesus come?’ is answered with: “to get me to heaven.” In the second: “to enact God’s will on Earth – to restore shalom and Original Intent of the Creator for his humans and world.”

This might be why some of my Reformed/Calvinist friends are so upset by some of today’s shifts. It changes the narrative entirely. And if you are holding onto the Reformation’s narrative with both hands as if it is the sine qua non of the Gospel, then this shift in perspective is not one you like. It may explain the Reformed antagonism vs NT Wright regarding his work on the meaning of justification – because Wright reaches for a much larger biblical narrative than the Reformation question of ‘how am I justified?’

I wonder if this is a shift in Christian theology in general?  If it is, it’s big.   It changes what the whole gospel is about! Instead of the whole point being ‘getting to heaven,’ this conceptualizes the Gospel to be about  restoring God’s will for life on Earth – bringing our lives, and every aspect of life on our planet (ecology, politics, human rights, relationships, etc etc etc), under the Lordship of Jesus and God’s original intent for life on our world.

Some people have called this a bigger Gospel than the one most of us have grown up with. It looks more and more to me that you can legitimately demonstrate this understanding of ‘Gospel’ in the New Testament when you take off the glasses of theological assumptions you’ve grown accustomed to reading with. I am very confident that this is how the Old Testament characterizes humanity’s problem.